Urban Safari

In Rio, you can take a classical tour of the favelas. Tour companies offer rides in open jeeps such as those that crisscross African savannas on safaris. Tourists observe the constructions, discuss the local architecture, interact with the locals, are enchanted with the children—in brief, poverty is seen as something picturesque; and the poor , who are seen as a species far from being extinct, gain nothing from all this. Visitors may observe from close a diversified way of life and culture. “We show them the culture and the sustainable development of a community.”

I knew a man from the city of São Paulo who, in an attempt to be seen as a plain, simple person, told me during the tour, that when he comes to Rio (this was not his first time) he likes to have a beer at a joint with a Mr. Raimundo to “exchange ideas.” “You know, for people like us who spend their lives shut up in an office, we learn a great deal from these people.” He then pulled out his iPhone and began to show me some black-and-white photos of the said Raimundo [aged about 60], toothless, thin, and smiling. I showed no reaction. Felt ashamed. He, enthusiastic, said: “This is art, Silvia! Brazil is rich. Diversity, miscegenation!” I thought: This is the kind of guy who goes to Bahia, comes back with a berimbau to decorate his home, and is married to a pure white São Paulo girl like himself.”

Okay. I was a participant in that tour, precisely to better understand those that decide to climb on a jeep to get to know the Rio favelas. I felt embarrassed. Although I knew that those jeeps did not bother in the least the favela dwellers and that they may even earn something from such expeditions, I felt myself ridiculous, was taken over by a feeling of privacy invaded. It was as if the poor were a kind of circus freaks. I thought that somehow those tourists would for a moment [say, five minutes] observe all of that and question their [our] values. Sheer illusion. The five minutes fly by fast and the group incorporates Sebastião Salgado and begin to make more and more photos.

In fact, since Sebastião Salgado began to portray poverty, inspired at the time by noble causes, photographs of the starving have become art, no matter how pointless. Values, the discourse of how far we have distanced ourselves from what we really need just to have what we desire, the shock in the face of inequality, all of this is ignored. We are frantic capitalists and sharing is something we know nothing about. After the tour, everybody goes to the Roberta Sudbrack restaurant, and the poor will travel by way of Facebook and Instagram, and may even end up decorating the wall of some elite home.

[1] Favelas are communities that used to consist of jerry-built shacks, settled on the hills in and around the more exclusive Rio neighborhoods. They used to be known for poverty and crime, but in many cases, the population is better off than elsewhere. And they do enjoy the most magnificent views of the city, selling drugs peacefully.

[2] Berimbau, a typical musical instrument of Bahia.

[3] Sebastião Salgado, the great, universally recognized Brazilian photographer who has roamed the world documenting the human condition.

[4] Roberta Sudbrack is a prominent Brazilian chef.

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